David J. Voelker: Review of Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death (New York: Penguin, 2006)
After William James’s death in 1910, newspapers teemed with stories of psychic mediums who claimed to have communicated with his spirit. On Oct. 2 of that year, the New York Times responded to these stories with an interview with inventor Thomas Edison, an icon of the scientific worldview. Edison candidly denied the existence of the divine creator, the soul, and the afterlife. He asserted (in a stunningly reductive stroke) that human beings were merely an “aggregate of cells”—indeed, that even in life humans had no real existence as individuals and therefore could not possibly continue to exist after death. Edison also dismissed the work of psychical researchers affiliated with James because they were “desirous of believing,” which made them unreliable inquirers. In short, although Edison expressed hope that humanity might someday better understand the mind, he declared supernaturalism bunk.
Had he been alive and within earshot, William James would have strenuously objected to Edison’s comments. James stated, and Edison would have agreed, that “Science means, first of all, a certain dispassionate method,” but James qualified this point considerably by declaring: “To suppose that [science] means a certain set of results that one should pin one’s faith upon and hug forever is sadly to mistake its genius, and degrades the scientific body to the status of a cult” (James, 1890, quoted in Blum, 171). Edison and most scientists ruled out the reality of the supernatural in advance, thus violating the basic spirit of inquiry, as defined by James. Furthermore, as James argued in his famous 1895 essay “The Will to Believe,” in some cases “a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.” He thus would have found Edison’s criticism reflective of “an insane logic.” James defended the right to explore beliefs that lacked empirical justification. For decades he supported research into the paranormal, committing himself to open-minded, open-ended, yet still purposeful inquiry.
Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death (New York: Penguin, 2006) shares some but not all of these qualities. Drawing on thorough archival research, Blum weaves an engaging and provocative narrative that lacks clear purpose. Blum’s fascinating series of stories about séances, mediums, and psychical investigators add up to a substantial account of the attempt of a small group of respectable, well-heeled researchers to put the study of psychical phenomena on a scientific footing, thereby unifying the study of the natural and supernatural. James, a Harvard medical school graduate who made important contributions to philosophy and the blooming discipline of psychology, was the most prominent supporter of psychical research in America. In 1885, James became a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), an organization modeled on the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). James closely followed the ASPR and promoted its work for a quarter century by writing supportive articles for Scribner’s Magazine and the Psychological Review. Occasionally, James even participated in psychical research himself.
The most important medium studied by the ASPR was Lenora Piper, an unassuming middle-class woman from Boston. Richard Hodgson, the Australian-born workhorse of the ASPR, did over 130 sittings with Piper, who, in a trance state, frequently revealed to pseudonymous guests information that she had no apparent means of possessing. Hodgson and other ASPR researchers used unsavory tactics (such as filling Piper’s mouth with detergent and salt) to verify her trance state. Piper passed these tests. They also spied on Piper and used private investigators to confirm that she was not relying upon informants. They found nothing suspicious. After years of study, Hodgson became convinced that Piper was channeling a deceased friend of his. James also did sittings with Piper and found her powers “baffling.”
Many readers, too, will be baffled by these stories. The book abounds with accounts of mediums who possessed information that they, by all appearances, could have received only by paranormal means, whether from spirits or via telepathy. Blum also describes numerous incidents wherein researchers believed that they had observed telekinetic effects, from floating tables to blowing curtains untouched by earthly wind. (The closely studied Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, despite her known penchant for cheating, convinced a number of researchers that such telekinetic effects were possible.) Skeptics will find hearty fare here, as Blum’s stories reveal that the researchers carried out many badly flawed experiments and found few trustworthy mediums. But because Blum reports uncritically on the ASPR’s research, skeptics more than believers will find this book troubling. She occasionally allows criticisms both from within and without the society to enter into her narrative, but she over-privileges the perspectives of the ASPR researchers, declining to overlay her narrative with critical analysis.
Blum might seem to be adopting a Jamesian posture by withholding judgment, but she actually makes it too easy for readers to conclude that the book confirms their preconceptions. Skeptical readers can nod and sigh alongside Edison, while believers can see the book as proving the reality of the paranormal (as some reviewers on Amazon.com clearly have). It is not possible to provide a definitive explanation of what happened during the ASPR sittings, and it is not a flaw of the book that Blum did not do so. But the most interesting question to ask about the ASPR does not involve the outcome of the sensationalistic ghost hunting of the book’s title; rather, it involves the spirit in which those investigations were carried out. The significance of the story lies in the fact that William James, one of the most important intellectuals to emerge out of 19th-century America, spent decades investigating a fundamental question about the nature of scientific inquiry. Blum might have done more to address this reverberating issue in American intellectual life.
Consider, for example, intelligent design (ID) theory. On the surface, it might seem that the open-minded James would approve of the ID project of demonstrating the intelligent creative force behind life. Both psychical research and ID challenge scientific orthodoxy by accepting the possibility of a supernatural reality. On a number of counts, however, ID theory violates the Jamesian spirit of inquiry. While James argued that scientists should try to study a mysterious supernatural reality that may exist, advocates of ID necessarily assume the existence of an intelligent creator and deny well-established knowledge in favor of identifying “irreducible complexity.” Furthermore, James drew on his intellectual predilections (his “passional nature,” as he would have said) to guide his continuous inquiry rather than to serve premeditated conclusions. In his 1909 article “Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher,” he declared that he was no less baffled at that time (a year before his death) than he had been two dozen years earlier. The only firm conclusion that he could draw was that there was a subterranean “cosmic consciousness” whose influence did sometimes “leak in” to the individual’s consciousness. If this tentative conclusion were true, it could have helped advance the understanding of the human mind. ID theory, on the other hand, seems to have little potential to produce new knowledge beyond reaffirming the presupposition of its advocates that complex forms of life must owe their existence to an intelligent creator. To label something as “irreducibly complex” is to declare further exploration pointless, an act that James would have found anathema.
For his part, James accepted the idea of biological evolution, but he did not believe that Darwin’s theory, with its dual emphases on accident and fitness, should be considered the last word about the meaning of the universe. He refused to grant any single idea this status. For this reason, his acceptance of evolution did not rule out the possibility of religious belief. James may have warmly anticipated the unification of inquiry into natural and supernatural worlds. He would not, however, have welcomed any attempt to pass religion off as science or science off as religion—as the last word about the meaning of the universe. We could do worse than to be guided by his vision of the “intellectual republic,” with its “spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory.”